A Brief History of International Environmental Negotiations

The 90s were a pivotal decade for the climate change movement—it saw the birth of the world’s first international climate change agreement to curb GHG emissions, and the rise a revolutionary treaty that single-handedly saved the Earth’s ozone layer. Since then, little headway has been made in the world of climate negotiations: not a single binding treaty, no universal ratification. More importantly, the first commitment phase of the Kyoto Protocol has come to an end, and the world needs a legally-binding treaty to take its place today. The world needs Paris! 

So let’s rewind time and explore the last two decades of climate leadership (or lack thereof). The story of these international negotiations is a classic one, fueled by politics and greed, and driven by money. Without further ado, we present: A Brief History of Environmental Negotiations: the Abridged Version.

ACT I: Climate Change

How did it all start?

In 1992, 195 countries came together in Rio de Janeiro to adopt the world’s first international framework, called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), to organize country commitments to reduce GHG emissions. The UNFCCC itself does not set forth legally binding emission limits or enforcement mechanisms; however with universal participation, it is the only international platform to negotiate binding and non-binding protocols to stabilize global emissions. 

That’s a good start. What next!  

Five years later, world leaders developed the famous Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty that set forth legally binding emission reduction targets for participating industrialized countries. The Kyoto Protocol was created with the aim of reducing emissions by 5% compared to 1990 levels by 2012. As of today, Kyoto is signed by 192 countries.  

…what’s the catch? 

Aha! There’s always a catch! Kyoto was designed to target GHG emissions from industrialized countries while developing countries were given free rein to emit as they please. Additionally and unsurprisingly, Kyoto ran into problems with participation: USA did not ratify Kyoto (which means it was not legally bound to reduce GHG emissions), Russia didn’t sign till 2004, and Canada pulled out of the Protocol in 2011. 

So just to recap: Kyoto Protocol was the first legally binding commitment made by industrialized countries to cap emissions but (and this is a big but), China, India, and USA—the world’s three largest emitters—did not commit to any emissions reductions. 

It only gets better from here, right? 

Wrong. Kyoto was only entered into force in 2005, 8 years after it was first developed. In the meantime, China, India and USA continue to grow and emit. The first commitment phase of Kyoto was scheduled to end in 2012 so concerned parties were racking their brains to find a way to renew Kyoto commitments and propose an effective way to curb global emissions.

Fast forward to Copenhagen in 2009. This is the first time both developed and developing countries agreed to reduce their national GHG emissions. The resultant Copenhagen Accord did not prescribe legally binding commitments or mechanisms, but this was the first time both developed and developing countries broke bread at the same table. While some claim that the emission targets were not ambitious enough, everyone seems to agree that Copenhagen did not give the world what it needed: an enforceable, legally binding treaty. 

Err this is getting complicated!

Oh, we are just scratching the surface. In 2012, leaders came together in Doha to discuss the second commitment phase (2013 to 2020) of the Kyoto Protocol—they demanded new, stricter emission reductions targets in the Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol. With only 32 countries participating, the Doha Amendment has not yet entered into force. 

So where are we today? 

The first commitment phase of the Kyoto Protocol ended in 2012 so as of today, countries are not bound by a universally ratified treaty to curb global emissions. In December 2015, world leaders will assemble at the UN Climate Summit in Paris to negotiate a new climate deal to reduce GHG emissions. There has been much drama and controversy in the lead up to Paris: some countries have drafted ambitious emission reduction plans, while others remain mum. In order to stay on the 2ºC track, we will need a universally ratified, legally binding treaty that puts proper financial and enforcement mechanisms in place. 

Is this making your head spin? Hopefully our handy timeline will help: 

Untitled Infographic (1)

ACT II: The Ozone Layer

“Perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date has been the Montreal Protocol.” — Kofi Annan, Former Secretary General of the United Nations

You’re probably tired and confused by this point, but please stay with us because this is the fun part. This is a story of an environmental treaty gone right—this is the story of the Montreal Protocol. 

In 1989, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was signed into effect. Under the Protocol, all ozone depleting substances—chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs)—that degrade the ozone layer were to be phased out. By 2012, the Protocol received universal ratification with 197 participants, and achieved a 98% reduction in production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances.

This is an environmental success story. With international political consensus, financial burden sharing and immense public support, the Montreal Protocol achieved its goal of saving the ozone layer. It is also bears testimony to the fact that international cooperation on environmental issues can be achieved with the right leadership. 

So what do you think? Will the climate deal in Paris be successful in outlining and enforcing emission reduction targets à la the Montreal Protocol? Or will it go the way of Kyoto and result in a contentious climate agreement with limited participation and inadequate impact.